‘A Lot of Unanswered Questions’: Senators React After Classified Briefing on Chinese Spy Balloon

‘A Lot of Unanswered Questions’: Senators React After Classified Briefing on Chinese Spy Balloon
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) speaks in Washington on March 21, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/Getty Images)
Andrew Thornebrooke

Republicans are reacting with disapproval following a hearing which examined the Biden DoD’s response to a Chinese spy balloon that traversed the continental United States last week.

Pentagon officials testified before a Senate Appropriations Defense hearing on Feb. 9, where they defended the department’s decision not to engage with China’s high-altitude surveillance balloon for an entire week, saying that it presented no immediate military threat.

Senators then received a classified briefing from U.S. officials.

Some lawmakers were less than impressed with the Pentagon’s evidence for its claims that the balloon presented no threat, however, and are pressing the Biden administration for increased transparency.

“We can tell each other the truth and we can tell our people the truth,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told NTD, a sister media outlet of the Epoch Times.

“I don’t know what has been happening with respect to the surveillance balloons, but I know that the Biden administration has not told the American people, the United States Congress, the truth.”

Kennedy singled out the administration’s recent admission that China is engaged in a worldwide spy campaign and that four similar Chinese spy balloons had passed into the continental United States in recent years, each of which apparently approached “strategic sites.”

He also criticized the administration’s apparent decision to attempt to conceal the event until local media in Montana broke the story.

“The president needs to explain to all of us… how many times this has been happening,” Kennedy said. “The President has left the impression that if someone in Montana had not spotted the balloon and called CBS and CBS didn’t print the story that the White House would never have told us.”

“I’m not saying the President’s lying. But he needs to explain why what he is asserting is actually the case.”

In a similar vein, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said that the classified briefing’s revelations were so insubstantial that it should have been public.

“What we were just briefed on in there, I think it should just be made public,” Sullivan told reporters after the briefing.

“We haven’t learned anything more than what everyone already knew,” Cotton said. “China sent a spy balloon to fly all across America. The Biden administration had a chance to shoot it down over Alaska and they chose to let it spy all across America. End of story.”

Questions Persist Over Delay in Shootdown 

During the hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) criticized the Pentagon’s decision to allow the Chinese spy balloon to enter U.S. airspace over Alaska’s Aleutian Islands without repercussion.

Afterward, she told NTD that it was vital the Pentagon not treat states differentially.

“No state should feel like they are more vulnerable than the rest,” Murkowski said.

“If it’s appropriate to take it down off of the east coast, in U.S. airspace, it is also equally appropriate to take it down off of the Alaskan coast.”

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose state’s territory was also violated by the balloon, remarked similarly.

“The Chinese invaded our airspace,” Daines said. “We could have taken that balloon down when it was over the Aleutians days before in U.S. airspace… They didn’t choose to shoot it down.”

“When it came over Montana, I guarantee you, they could have taken down that spy balloon, and the greatest risk would have been hitting a cow or a prairie dog.”

Daines also underscored the danger posed by allowing the balloon so near the United States’ nuclear arsenal in Montana.

“On behalf of the people of Montana, whose airspace was violated by this Chinese spy balloon, I have a lot of unanswered questions,” Daines said.

“That Chinese spy balloon hovered over the most powerful weapons known to mankind, which are called intercontinental ballistic missiles. These are weapons of mass destruction.”

For its part, the Pentagon has maintained that there was no physical threat posed by the spy balloon.

A Pentagon spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email that North American Aerospace Defense Command did not assess the balloon to be a military threat and that the benefit of collecting intelligence from it outweighed the consequences of allowing it to remain in U.S. airspace.

The spokesperson also acknowledged that President Joe Biden directed the Pentagon through national security advisor Jake Sullivan to “refine and present options to shoot the balloon down immediately” on Jan. 31.

Still, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said that the Defense Department had failed to provide any evidence that it should not have shot down the spy balloon earlier, and feared that Pentagon doublespeak on the issue was weakening national security.

“My feeling is right now that this should have been shot down over Alaska, that the Defense Department has too many lawyers, and we’re just perceived as very weak across the nation and across the world,” Marshall told NTD.

“People in Kansas are very upset about this. There was nothing in there [the briefing] that I learned that would have [suggested] that we shouldn’t have shot it down when it was over Alaska.”

The disappointment in the administration’s response to the balloon was not universal.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) maintained that the decision to collect intelligence from the balloon before destroying it over the Atlantic Ocean was appropriate.

“I believe ... that the administration acted correctly, and how it dealt with the surveillance balloon of the Chinese sent a very resolute message,” Menendez told NTD.

Likewise, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that he believed the administration had behaved appropriately and that the intelligence gathered from the balloon would be worth the price of whatever information it may have transmitted back to China.

“Everything I learned today confirms that the administration made the right decision,” Murphy said. “There was a non-zero chance this balloon, had it been downed over the United States, would have been very costly to U.S. lives.”

“And the collection that we did while it was over the United States is going to pay dividends.”

Andrew Thornebrooke is a national security correspondent for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.
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